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Mumbai: A throbbing, vibrant and crumbling mess of a metropolis

Sunday August 15 2010

By RASNA WARAH

I have spent almost a month in Mumbai – India’s financial capital and home to the country’s thriving film industry – and I still haven’t figured out how this city works.

This throbbing, noisy, vibrant megacity of some 18 million people has been described as an “alpha city”, a “world city”, a “city of dreams”, and even a “maximum city”. But it is difficult for a visitor to understand why Mumbai – a critical node in the global economy and a city with the highest GDP in the whole of South Asia – is also a place of immense poverty, squalor and chaos.

Indians like to describe Mumbai as the New York of India, a place where the stock market rises as often as movie stars’ hemlines, and where a budding actor or entrepreneur can become rich and famous overnight through a combination of luck, talent and hard work.

While there are parts of this city that have a New Yorkish feel about them, much of the city feels like a very large and crumbling slum. For one, there is hardly any public space that has not been “privatised” by slum families or by makeshift shops and hawkers.

It is not unusual to find an entire family residing on a pavement or under a bridge, and bathing, defecating and sleeping there. Uncovered drains that look like they are carrying every possible water-borne disease known to humanity are to be found even in the poshest neighbourhoods.

It is almost impossible to take a walk in the city without stumbling on stray dogs, pavement dwellers, or mountains of garbage. Despite being the richest local government in the country, and in spite of a proliferation of residents’ associations that seek to improve the urban environment, Mumbai has, apparently, been unable to provide high-quality sewerage and sanitation systems for its residents, or build roads that don’t fall apart during the monsoons.

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The air quality is among the worst in the world, and the noise pollution emitted by undisciplined honking cars, auto-rickshaws (tuk tuks) and taxis is unbearable. Yet, despite all these problems, India’s educated elite like to boast that Mumbai’s environment does not diminish its worth as a city. They say Mumbai is an example of how democracy operates.

They argue that unlike authoritarian China, which can control how fast or how slowly cities grow and plans for urban growth, in a democracy like India, urbanisation is an organic process that cannot be controlled or planned.

Charles Correa, India’s famous architect and urban planner, rightly called Mumbai a “great city, but a terrible place” but also argued that the implosion of people and energy in the city may be ruinous for the environment, but it also intensified Mumbai’s quality as a city.

But I would argue that the quality of Mumbai as a city is being ruined by the poor environment; no amount of energy or vibrancy can compensate for the toxic air that the city residents have to breathe in every day.

Correa’s own attempts to improve urban planning and governance in the city did not yield much due to a variety of reasons, including an apathetic bureaucracy and corrupt and greedy developers, not to mention big-time gangsters and politicians who run the city as if it is their private property.

Despite all its problems though, Mumbai is still the only big city in the world that I know of where the economy is based mostly on trust and word of mouth. Mumbai functions because it is managed through informal relationships based on trust that keep the city going.

Without this trust, it would be unmanageable and anarchy would rule. But could it be that it is not democracy or trust that keeps Mumbai running but caste and class, which dictate how society is organised? It is possible, but it is also very likely that it is only in cities such as Mumbai that India’s lower castes can aspire for upward mobility.

Perhaps the real allure of the city lies in the fact that it blurs the lines that have divided so much of the rest of India.

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